Bach: Keyboard Partitas (Klavierubung I)
Craig Sheppard, piano
Romeo Records 2 CD set
This Goes to the Top of the List of Bach Keyboard Partita Recordings
I had never even heard of Craig Sheppard until I heard a sample of a
recording from his complete traversal of the Beethoven sonatas, captured
live in a series of recitals in Seattle where Sheppard is a professor
at the University of Washington. I was bowled over by it and even
more so after I got the whole set. (See my review of that set here:
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B0009IW90W/classicalnet) I put
Sheppard on my list of pianists to watch for, either in recital anywhere
near where I'm located or of new releases. Well, this two-CD set of the
Bach Partitas is just out and it is a pure joy. In fact, on the basis
of this and the Beethoven set I have decided to automatically obtain
whatever Sheppard chooses to record. There are only a few pianists who
make that list.
These two CDs, available for the price of one, contain all six of Bach's
keyboard partitas which comprise part I of his Klavierubung. Even though
he was 46 when they were printed, they were the first of his works to
be published. He published them himself with this inscription, "Keyboard
practice consisting of preludes, allemandes, courantes, sarabandes,
gigues, menuets and other galanteries, composed for music lovers to
refresh their spirits." I must say this recording has done that for me;
in fact, I had trouble starting this review because I kept going back
and listening some more. It is not that I'm not familiar with the
partitas -- I've played much of this music myself -- but Sheppard way
with the music gave such delight that I didn't want it to stop. His
manner is a genial combination of dancing rhythms, impeccable articulation
(and, remember, these are live performances), great variety of touch,
pulse and dynamics as well as, best of all, the intelligence, deep
musicality and technique to pull this off and make it seem easy.
CD 1 contains, in this order, Partitas 3, 2 & 6; CD 2 has Partitas 5, 1
& 4. I'm not sure why this order was chosen. No matter. I found myself
repeating various movements as well as picking and choosing individual
movements so the order didn't much matter to me. These works were not
meant by Bach to be played in any particular order, or all at once,
although there are thematic cross references in the individual partitas.
Sheppard seems able to play in a manner that is somewhere between the
ultra-refined style used in Bach by, say, Schiff or Perahia, and the
easy, insouciant manner of Angela Hewitt. Certainly he does not use the
dramatic staccato manner of Glenn Gould. He has some of the qualities
of all these artists and yet makes his own statement, one I find deeply
satisfying. There is a sweet musing, almost exalted, coupled with
rhythmic aliveness in his playing that no one else brings to these works.
The sound of his own Hamburg Steinway is one factor; it is a marvelous
instrument. One has the sense that Sheppard, although playing before
an audience in Seattle's Meany Auditorium, is so absorbed in the music
that he is unconscious of it, and his absorption is coupled with incredible
concentration, all at the service of his vision of the music. (By the
way, one is not aware that this is a live recording from the sound except
for brief applause at the conclusion of each Partita.)
A few highlights: I love the Toccata from the 6th Partita immoderately.
It is often played either solemnly or bombastically. Sheppard plays it
as an exalted improvisation with little adjustments of tempo and touch
that one would expect in such a performance. In Sheppard's performance
the fugal latter portion sounds made up on the spot. The concluding
Capriccio of the 2nd Partita does indeed sound capricious and Sheppard
emphasizes the quirky harmonic twists deliciously. The fugal Gigue of
No. 6 sounds the most like Gould of anything here; this is appropriate
because the main subject begs to be played staccato. Sheppard plays it
at a fast pace and yet articulation is pristine -- a marvelous bravado
performance of the movement that concludes the last and most grandiose
of the partitas.
I had to restrain myself from getting out of my chair and dancing to
the Corrente from the 3rd Partita or marching to the Scherzo of the same
work (even though it's in triple time!). The Praeambulum of No. 5 flows
like mountain stream -- limpid, refreshing, alive. One of my favorite
of all the partita movements is the Tempo di minuetto of No. 5 with its
hemiolas that Bach uses to instruct and amuse. Sheppard plays it in a
delicate slightly detache style and manages to surprise us with the
metric changes every darn time. This is real musicianship!
I could go on, but I'll stop with my high praise for all of the gigues
from the individual partitas. I think it is here that we hear all of
Sheppard's virtues undiluted. There is no pecking or stabbing at the
piano as one sometimes hears, but there is also no deadening legato.
Somehow he manages to keep the rhythms and phrasing alive with minute
adjustments of touch and pulse. Amazing!
This set belongs in the collection of anyone who loves these pieces,
no matter what other versions they already have.
A most urgent recommendation.
[Note to self: Find and buy Sheppard's recordings of the Goldbergs,
the Diabellis and his Scarlatti CD.]